Monday, September 28, 2015

Why Doesn't the Valeyard Work?

In 1986, during Season Twenty-Three's 'Trial of a Time Lord', Bob Holmes (with contributions from others including Philip Martin, Eric Saward and Pip and Jane Baker) introduced a character that instantly gripped the imagination of pretty much the entire fanbase at the time...the Valeyard. He began the story as the prosecutor in the titular trial of the Doctor, but by the end he was revealed as something far more shocking--a future incarnation of the Doctor, a distillation of all his worst impulses into living form. He instantly became a major, core element of the mythos of the series...

Well, no, actually he didn't. In fact, apart from a few audio stories (I think that Beep the Meep may actually have appeared more often than the Valeyard) and a mention in the Season Seven finale, the Valeyard has been rather conspicuously absent for a character who would seem to have so much storytelling potential. In point of fact, for the longest time he was not only absent but forbidden: The Virgin submission guidelines made it clear that any pitch featuring the Valeyard, explicitly stating that they felt he had no storytelling potential and was a crutch used by bad writers in order to make their stories seem more significant.

Is that true? Certainly, you could argue pretty persuasively that any story that features the Valeyard could be done just as easily with the Master; he's already the Doctor's "dark mirror", so in a lot of ways the part is already taken. (It's probably significant that the one major Valeyard story featured the Master helping the Doctor against the Valeyard.) But surely there has to be something that can be done specifically with the Valeyard that can't be done with a generic "evil Time Lord scientist", right? There has to be something particular and special about the idea of the Doctor's potential corrupted and debased into cruelty and sadism?

But the Valeyard we see on screen has nothing to him beyond cruelty and sadism. He's evil. Full stop. The Doctor's "dark mirror" is a murderous sociopath who does evil things for evil's sake, or at least that's how he's played in 'Trial'. He's a sneering, preening, gloating villain who wants to cause chaos for its own sake. If he's the Doctor's dark mirror, then the Doctor must be a humble, self-effacing sort who's interested in preserving order and..

Ah. Yes. There it is.

The Doctor has never been an unambiguously, uncomplicatedly "good" individual. He's a mercurial creature of chaos in his own right, toppling governments and dashing off into the night without ever caring what results he leaves behind. He's at times callous, at other times startlingly sympathetic over trivial details. He's refused to kill his enemies because he believes deeply in compassion...and he's steered whole fleets of alien conquerors into the sun with a casual "good riddance". He's burned whole planets, and sacrificed his life to save a single man. He is perhaps the most strikingly complex protagonist in television history...and yet his "dark mirror" is just a typical Man in the Black Hat who comes up with complicated-yet-rubbish schemes. (Am I talking about the Valeyard or the Master? Yes.)

For the Valeyard to work, he'd have to be far more like the Doctor than he is. He'd have to be a capricious monster, one just as willing to spare an entire world from his depredations simply because he liked the color of the sky as he was to crush a sparrow underfoot for singing out of tune. He'd have to be an agent of order as well as chaos, perfectly willing to spend decades on a trivial task because it was worth doing right and then dashing a whole civilization to dust with a few whispered words. In short, a dark and twisted incarnation of the Doctor would be very difficult to distinguish from...the Doctor. The difference between the Doctor's best self and his worst impulses is a matter of degree and emphasis, as he himself has admitted on occasion. ("Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.") Ultimately, the reason the Valeyard is so underused is because he's superfluous to requirements. The Doctor has all the darkness he needs without having to outsource it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"The Right Gaming Group"

io9, just moments ago, published an article on resources you can use to find a gaming group in your area. They point out that finding the right gaming group can be tricky, since there's no one set of criteria everyone shares for "the right group", and your mileage may vary at all times. While this is true, I've certainly noticed a few things over the years that are important, and I thought I might share them with people.

The Big Important Points:

1) It is, fundamentally, a game. The very definition of the word "game" includes the phrase "amusement"; it is intended to be a leisure activity that you enjoy doing. This means that if anyone is taking the game so seriously that they lose sight of that--rules lawyering, losing patience with inexperienced players, being needlessly sadistic as a GM, freaking out over missed sessions, demanding strict adherence to in-character behavior, flipping out when your character dies or anything else not on this list that involves getting upset or angry over what is fundamentally a social activity--they need to relax or else they may not be a good fit for a gaming group.

2) It is a co-operative game. This is an important part of it, because while you should never lose your temper or freak out over someone playing a game badly, the counterpart of that is that you should at least put effort into it. You should try to be there for every session (yes, life happens, we all know it, but if you're missing more than one out of every five or six sessions you should look into why); you should always pay attention to the game--phones put away and TV off is a default minimum, but more generally you should listen to what everyone is saying and try to play along so long as they're suggesting something even reasonably fun; and for Pete's sake it is not a competition. Unless it is a clear, agreed-upon-by-all-parties-especially-the-GM, official and well-understood part of the campaign, you should never ever ever ever ever EVER be screwing around with your fellow party members. Basically, if everyone wants to play 'Paranoia' or something, that's fine, but that one person who always plays a Chaotic Evil character so they can backstab another player and claim "I was just being in character"? Kick 'em to the curb. They're toxic, they will ruin everyone else's fun, and they're unlikely to change.

Oh, and if you're a GM, you should always try to apply the rules in a way that makes the players' experiences fulfilling. This doesn't mean Monty Haul gaming; being challenged is exciting and overcoming a big challenge is thrilling, and that's part of a fulfilling gaming experience. It also isn't exactly the same thing as "applying the rules fairly"; sometimes the rulebook gets in the way of a fun game. (And sometimes your adventure notes get in the way of a fun game. Learning to improvise with what's interesting to your characters is a big part of making a good game.) But you shouldn't favor anyone unduly, you shouldn't disregard the rulebook solely in order to do bad things to players, you should be willing to change your mind when a player points out a legitimate rules mistake instead of getting defensive (sometimes the rules lawyer is right!) and you should always give them a fighting chance. And most importantly, you should communicate with them in a mature fashion in order to avoid misunderstandings.

That's my criteria for what makes a good gaming group. You could probably distill it down further to "Everyone should work hard to try to make everyone else's experiences fun", I suppose, but I wanted to mention specific red flags that come up when that isn't happening. Even the red flag-items, though, aren't automatically bad. As long as everyone is relaxed, participating in a spirit of good-hearted fun, and willing to take the unusual in stride, the occasional intra-party kill or GM fiat isn't going to hurt anything. Just try to remember that the point is to create good memories, and those happen whether or not you "win".

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: The Deep

Nick Cutter's 'The Deep' is quite possibly the most disturbing book I've ever read.

It's not the scariest--I think that for a story to be truly terrifying you have to be able to, on some level, imagine it happening to you. That's why most of them start so simply--everyone can imagine going up to a cabin for the weekend, everyone can imagine taking a wrong turn late at night, everyone can imagine stopping at the wrong hotel. I don't think many people can imagine traveling eight miles straight down to an undersea base at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in order to assist their brilliant-but-remote scientist brother in his efforts to harvest a miracle cure for a new disease using a substance unknown to science. It's not, y'know...common.

But 'The Deep' isn't scary. (Well, okay, it is actually pretty scary, but it's not primarily scary. If you get my meaning.) 'The Deep' is disturbing. 'The Deep' presents a vision of a universe that is fundamentally at odds with rationality--not simply a scary thing down at the bottom of the ocean, but a rot at the heart of everything we think we know about the way that reality works. The book isn't about insanity; it's almost the opposite of insanity, the attempts by fundamentally rational people to comprehend something that cannot be understood through rational means. I've read plenty of books where the big twist is that the main character is insane, but I don't think I've ever read a book before where I was hoping that to be the case.

'The Deep' has a magnificent purity to its commitment to sheer, sickening irrationality. None of it makes sense. The disease the characters are attempting to cure, a progressive memory disorder called "the 'Gets", has no apparent mechanism for transmission. It appears out of nowhere. The substance that apparently cures it, ambrosia, is sickeningly physics-defying and does things to people and animals that makes the Colour out of Space look like Turf Builder. Even the environment the story takes place in has a tendency to warp and shift in impossible ways, resulting in some of the most memorable and nightmarish imagery I've seen in a horror novel. It's almost like living a fever dream.

Even worse, it never feels like this is an ordinary world that is being corrupted. Several characters including the protagonist, Luke, have flashbacks to horrific events from their past that take on a distinct tinge of madness and impossibility. It feels almost as though whatever they've come in contact has been waiting for them all their lives, and I hope I'm not spoiling things too much when I say that this isn't too far from the truth. That rot is everywhere in 'The Deep' once you start looking for it. It stretches deep into the past and all the way down to the bottom of the ocean. It transforms the things it touches, and it has a purpose.

I cannot stress enough how much this book impresses me. It sets out to achieve a certain tone, a sense of creeping, inchoate, inexplicable chaos and it hits the notes so perfectly that I can't imagine any way of improving it. The novel never gives in to the urge to define its monsters in terms of myth or legend the way so many horror stories eventually do; it comes close, near the end, when you come face to face with the heart of the madness and find a little kinship to the monsters we all imagine to be trapped down below, but it never does anything as slapdash or lazy as saying, "Hey, it was Satan/C'thulhu/Killer BOB all along!" The book remains resolute in its commitment to utter madness on a cosmic scale, even as the ending makes perfect, inevitable sense. (That ending, man. That's going to haunt you.)

Cutter also manages to shed most of the trappings of Stephen King here. There's still a tiny amount--like King, much of the book centers on the father/son dynamic that King explored in novels like 'The Shining' and 'Cell'--but I feel like this book is where Cutter comes into his own. I don't think I'll wait long to pick up his next book.

Thank God that it doesn't sound as creepy as this one.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: The Dark

Reading James Herbert's novel 'The Dark' is almost like cracking open a time capsule--the book was published in 1980, but it's clearly steeped in the influences of the late 1970s. You can see pretty much every trope of British horror at the time laid out in front of you with the meticulous care of someone who wanted to make the most 70s-Britishy horror novel they could possibly make, and who assembled each ingredient with the precision of someone deeply attuned to the zeitgeist of the era.

So you have a hero who's a paranormal investigator who researches haunted houses, but who's a skeptic who believes that it can all be explained away rationally, because that peculiar blend of New Age parapsychology and 'Stone Tape' rationalism was in everyone's mind. You have an evil death cult that all committed mass suicide, because Jim Jones and the People's Temple, but with an overlay of Manson Family (they're not all dead and the survivors are carrying out the master's plan). You have pseudo-religion to go with the parapsychology angle--naturally, the master of the evil cult has his own cosmology that will give him life beyond death, and even more naturally this new mix of paranormal science and ancient religion forms an all-encompassing Theory of Everything that explains away all previous religions as imperfect understanding of this new science. Because that's what people did in the 70s before cocaine replaced LSD as the drug of choice.

And naturally, since it's British horror in the 70s, you get heaping dollops of Hammer-style ironic gore, with loads of people getting bloody (but not so bloody that you'd get it shredded by the censors) deaths in ways that just happen to dovetail with their own moral failings. Oh, and a romance that's veddy veddy British as well. And an ending that...well, let's just say that if you're familiar with the genre, you've probably already predicted it. The whole thing feels so much like a Hammer film that my brain actually envisioned it on grainy film stock.

None of which should suggest that I disliked the book. It's exactly what it sets out to be--a distillation of a bunch of popular culture topics that fit into the horror wheelhouse, expertly done and unfolding at a rapid and enjoyable pace. There are some great set pieces--in fact, the book is almost entirely composed of great set pieces, with briskly efficient narrative tissue connecting them together. The dialogue is a bit functional and perhaps over-concerned with paranormal jargon, but again, that's entirely what a book written in this era and set in this era should feel like.

Basically, once you've read 'The Dark' you really don't need to see or read another "ghost" movie or book from this era, because they're all going to be mostly like this. And frankly, if you just want to read one book from this era, you could certainly do worse than choose this one.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

My Dream Marvel Project

This is a "dream project" that I'd like Marvel to do and make available for purchase by me, just to clarify, not a dream project I'd like to do at Marvel. Although if they want me to help, I'm open.

Because it would be kind of ambitious. My idea is for a series of books collecting the entire Marvel Universe in chronological order. Everything they've ever declared to be canon, starting from the beginning (and yes, I know that would involve the Golden Age Timely stuff) and moving all the way up to the present day, by which time of course they would be years ahead because there's no way you could keep up with the material.

I'd like to see it as big, thick hardcovers, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 issues per book, just going month by month through Marvel's output and collecting as much as you can cram in one series. You wouldn't do it in the order it was set, obviously, or continuity inserts would eventually make it an incomprehensible nightmare--you'd probably need to jump around from series to series a bit, though. So one volume might have three or four issues of "Fantastic Four" that all occur as part of a single series of events, then jump over to a 'meanwhile...' set of issues in the X-Men that are meant to be roughly contemporaneous. (Perhaps even get a Marvel historian to annotate the whole thing with the reasons for placing issues in a given order?)

Obviously, it'd be huge, unwieldy, only-for-collectors, and probably desperately unprofitable. Still, I can dream of having the entire Marvel Universe spanning my shelves, can't I?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review: The Troop

As I said in my previous review, I have a thing for trashy horror. And part of the thing I have for trashy horror is that it's not really scary--it plays so closely to the established tropes of the genre that it almost becomes paradoxically safe and predictable. There's a Hero, who you know will survive to the end of the book, and a monster, which will seem invulnerable but which will be beaten at the end by a determined effort from the Hero (with an optional "stinger" showing it's not permanently destroyed) and of course, a cast of supporting characters who will die at regular intervals (with the possible exception of the Hero's Love Interest, who usually has plot immunity as well). It's silly horror. It's safe horror.

And then every once in a while I read something like Nick Cutter's 'The Troop'. That's the other kind of horror. The real thing. Queasy, gut-twisting fear that forces you to put the book down every few minutes because you feel like you're smothering when you read it. Nerve-twisting dread that makes you go on the Internet and look up plot summaries so that you can at least get some idea of where the plot is headed in order to stop at least a little bit of that uncertainty. (There are no plot summaries of this book online. Just to save you a little time.) This is a book that does not play games. It is not safe. It is utterly terrifying.

The story is very simple--a group of Boy Scouts out on a camping trip on a deserted island have an encounter with a starving man, and it turns out that he's very very sick. He's infested with parasites, genetically altered tapeworms that are literally eating him alive from the inside, and they're seeking new hosts. It does not take very long at all for the camping trip to go horribly, horribly wrong.

But this book moves past the lazy tropes of "scary worms crawling around looking to get into your body" (although there are some scenes of suffocating dread involving the worms, both when characters are trying to avoid infestation and when describing the experience of being infested with them). It's the people who are the most terrifying here--each of them filled with flaws and weaknesses that are exposed like a raw nerve by the crisis. This is a book about people, not about worms, and about the way that disaster brings out the best in some and the worst in others. And for one boy, budding serial killer Shelley, the worst turns out to be very bad indeed.

If there is one complaint I could make about the book, it's that Cutter does wear his influences somewhat on his sleeve--Shelley is a bit too reminiscent of Patrick Hockstetter in 'It' (a clear inspiration for this book in many ways) and one of the deaths bears a close resemblance to a sequence in 'The Ruins' (which is also about a small group of people who run into the unnatural and cope badly). The book does very much read like a style pastiche of King and Smith. That said, it's a style pastiche that succeeds at reading something like King or Smith might have written, rather than an inferior imitation, so I'm not sure how upset I can really be. Talent borrows, genius steals, right?

So while I recommend 'The Troop', I can't do so unreservedly. Because only you know your particular tolerance levels for white-knuckle terror and your stomach for gore. (The descriptions of what the tapeworms do to their host are not to be read before, during or after mealtimes.) If all you're looking for is some safe scares, a good old-fashioned "chiller", this is probably not the book for you. But if you're looking for real can do a lot worse than Nick Cutter's 'The Troop'.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: Dead Sea

I don't know exactly why, but I have a soft spot for trashy horror novels. You know the kind I'm talking about--quick reads that can usually be summed up as "monsters show up and whittle down the cast one by one", cover art that's usually a picture of said monsters, and titles that are either thuddingly blunt, like "Werewolf Moon", or so lyrical they're almost purple, like "Die Softly, My Darling", or lazy puns, like...well, like "Dead Sea".

Basically, what I'm saying is that this isn't really a good horror novel. It commits a lot of Brian Keene's usual sins; he comes up with a really interesting idea for a novel about apocalyptic societal collapse, something that nobody else in the genre is really doing, and then he has a first-person narrator skim through that idea in a five-page infodump at the beginning of the book so that he can get to a small cast of people running around with guns and shooting monsters for two hundred pages. Then, once the cast is sufficiently whittled down, the narrator gives a bleak coda. Admittedly, after "The Rising" and "The Conqueror Worms", I kind of knew what I was getting into, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating.

It doesn't help that this one is a little less inspired. "The Rising", for all that it didn't really make much use of the central concept of sentient zombies, at least had that as a compelling and unique hook. And "The Conqueror Worms" was bizarre, but it was so bizarre that it was downright fascinating. This is just, "Oh, hey, zombies. And zombie animals too, that's kind of different, right?" (It is different, but it's different on a level of, "You realize everyone in this book should be dead before page one, right?" A zombification virus that crosses species would result in an almost inconceivable holocaust, and I don't think Keene really got an idea of the scope of the devastation.)

But yes, "Dead Sea" is pretty much just zombies of all species. Survivors escape to the ocean, there's two hundred or so pages of running around and shooting things, and once the cast is whittled down sufficiently, the narrator gives a bleak coda. I think the big problem is that the end is simply too obvious; given that civilization has already collapsed, food and drink is impossible to obtain due to the fact that everything is already dead and still moving, and the virus keeps jumping species pretty much willy-nilly over the course of the novel, it's hard to even imagine that this won't have a bleak ending. It's hard to generate tension when all the characters are basically just "pre-dead"--you just can't get attached to them enough to care. (It doesn't help that they don't really sound like real people. There's a scene about two thirds of the way through where everyone just starts chatting about Jungian archetypes that is absolutely immersion-shattering in its sheer unbelievability.)

That said, Keene has a slick and propulsive narrative style that makes the book a quick read and an easy page-turner. You don't really get invested in the consequences of events, but the book moves smoothly from one event to the next without any real languors (apart, perhaps, from the aforementioned Jungian archetype conversation). There's also a vividly creepy human monster in the form of a priest who believes zombification to be a miracle and enacts his own perverse version of the transubstantiation myth, who really should have been given a more prominent role. Those sequences are probably the best bit.

So that's "Dead Sea". As long as you understand what you're getting into, it's a decent read. But like all of the guys who are listed as "the next Stephen King" on the back covers of their books, Keene is no Stephen King.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Review: Dopplegangsters

A few caveats:

1) There's actually an umlaut in the title, but I don't know how to format umlauts in Blogger. Yes, I'm aware that there's also an umlaut in "umlaut" that I can't type, either.

2) This is not the first Esther Diamond novel. If you decide to pick up this book based on my recommendation, you should probably not pick up this book. You should pick up Disappearing Nightly, which is the first book but which is not listed as the first book in this book because the series started under another publisher and the publishers of this book were apparently not about to give free publicity to a book they were hoping would go out of print so they could buy the rights and get the whole series under the same publisher. So although there's a handy info-dump at the beginning to get you up to speed, you probably don't want to do what I did and buy this book thinking it was the first book.

3) Full disclosure: Laura Resnick, author of Dopplegangsters, first came to my attention by making lots of smart, insightful, level-headed comments on the whole Puppy mess on File 770, and by posting cute pictures of her foster kittens on Facebook. I freely admit that I will pick up your first novel based on your cute cat pictures. After that, you need to have talent.

And with those caveats out of the way, let's talk Dopplegangsters. The first thing I'll say is that the book cover does a good job of setting expectations. The title, the cover art and the back cover copy all suggest a screwball comedy paranormal romance-mystery about Esther Diamond, an out-of-work actress who's waiting tables at a Mafia restaurant and bumps into a gangster twice in one night...only to witness his gruesome murder the next night. It turns out (spoilers!) that mob enforcers all over town are sprouting magical twins, and dying horrifically not long afterwards.

With those expectations in mind, the book lived up to them very nicely. Esther is a charming, sympathetic character with a good head on her shoulders and enough determination and smarts to make her a believable solver of bizarre gangland paranormal slayings, but she's also human and relatable enough to make her a believable out-of-work actress who's in way over her head a lot of the time and coping with the situation using wry humor and the occasional bout of panic.

Max, her sorcerer friend, is a bit caricatured--you'll recognize him from a lot of urban fantasy stories who have powerful immortal magic-wielders that are a bit out of touch with the modern world. But he's a well-done take on the caricature, and has some genuinely funny moments. Lopez, Esther's cop boyfriend who isn't particularly thrilled at her involvement with the Mafia, is sympathetic despite having a lot of plot functions that should theoretically force him to be a jerk (he's the token skeptic, he's trying to sideline Esther for her own safety, and as a cop he starts to get more than a little suspicious that Esther is hanging around with gangsters all the time). In some ways, he's the best character.

But really, the show is repeatedly stolen by good-guy hitman "Lucky", whose basic response to finding out that magic is real and that a professional killer is using it to whack people is, "Okay, that sucks. We should find that guy and kill him." There are a lot of great gags involving Lucky's pragmatic approach to the mystical world, and the impromptu education he provides Esther and Max in moving through his own territory without getting killed.

The mystery itself isn't exactly complicated--there's really only about three suspects, and Resnick takes the Agatha Christie tack of "the person who seems least likely to have done it is the obvious suspect". But this isn't really about the mystery--it's about the people solving it, and Resnick does an excellent job of creating characters that you want to spend time with. It's a book you don't so much read as hang out in, and the charming atmosphere will definitely make you want to spend a little more time with Esther Diamond.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Meet 'N Greet #9!

This particular feature of my blog has gone fallow ever since 'City of Heroes' went away, and I think that's kind of a shame because it was fun to talk about the concepts I had for my characters. I know that "please don't tell me about your character" is one of the standard jokes in fandom, but generally I feel like it applies more to people for whom the phrase "let me tell you about my character" means "let me tell you exclusively about the absurdly large/small [delete where applicable for gaming system] numbers I wrote down on my character sheet and the way it makes me better than everyone else at playing the game". Because numbers aren't inherently interesting, but characters frequently are.

Take for example today's entry, Paintboxer. He was a mad scientist, and when I say "mad" I mean "totally barking". His big moment of revelation came when he saw a truck passing his lab with the Sherwin-Williams logo painted on the side:

That was when he had his moment. This was no coincidence. It was a message, a coded message from the secret masters of the universe. This was his directive, his command, his all-consuming imperative from this day forth! He would design special gauntlets that could inject nano-engineered self-replicating paint droplets, and defeat the enemies of the secret world order by punching them with endless gallons of paint! He would design his own spacecraft, stealing to get the money if necessary, and he would put a bucket the size of the moon in geostationary orbit! And then...then, armed with his self-replicating paint and his massive paint-generating bucket, he would do the impossible. He would fulfill his orders. He would....


That was Paintboxer. You can see why I disagree that people who talk about their characters are boring.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Review: The Fifth Season

I'll be honest--if Nora Jemisin wasn't so damn brilliant, I'm not sure I could have made it through 'The Fifth Season'.

Because this is not a pleasant book. Page One opens with a woman cradling the body of her three-year old son, who has been beaten to death by her husband. By Page Seven, most of the continent has been devastated in an extinction-level cataclysm. And it pretty much goes on from there. I'm not saying it's not good, but of the many awards this will probably win, the first one should be "Book Least Likely To Be Reviewed Using the Phrase 'Madcap Romp'".

That said, I read to the end. Not just read--I devoured the book in great gulps, triggery scenes and all. Because Nora Jemisin is that brilliant. If she was a less talented writer, the brutality in this book would have been done simply for shock value, or exploitation. If she wasn't so amazing at her craft, these scenes wouldn't have made an emotional connection to the reader; they'd have been there simply to say, "This is a bad world with bad people that the hero must stop," a sort of signpost for evil that we could all walk past and know we were heading in the right direction.

But there is nothing that lazy in 'The Fifth Season'. Everything Jemisin writes is designed to remove the distance between you and the narrative. The three interweaving stories of Damaya, Syenite and Essun are meant to be your story as well--the use of the present tense, the use of the second-person voice in much of the story, these things are there to bring you closer so that you feel the pain of it. The injustice. The crushing, grinding despair that comes from being systematically exploited and abused for something outside of your control. Nora Jemisin wants to kick the props out from under you and make you feel something, and she succeeds completely.

That's what this book is really about--it's not about defeating a villain and toppling an evil empire. That happens by Page Seven, and I'm still not sure whether it was the right thing to do 442 pages later. This is a book about understanding how people can be exploited for their gifts and talents as well as their weaknesses. It's about learning that sometimes, people can look at you and see nothing more than a resource to be used. It is a powerful allegory for a powerful subject, and it's hard to feel the same way after you finish reading this book. It is a book that changes you. It takes a lot of talent to do that.

(It's also Book One of a trilogy, so don't expect a self-contained narrative. Just so you don't get frustrated at the end.)

This is a work of heartbreak, but it's all the more worth reading for that. I don't think most writers could have pulled it off. I don't necessarily think a lot of writers would have tried. But I'm glad someone did.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Review: The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy

I was going to start this review off with a satirical rant about this book being a perfect example of the way the SJWs "get you"--they start out with shipping and OTP and fanfiction, and then when you're hooked, they start in on the feminism! But then I remembered Poe's Law and decided to truncate that part significantly.

It is true, though, that Sam Maggs uses this book to walk women from the very basic points of fandom, such as identifying the things you love and finding other women who love it just as much as you do, up through to the point of having a social conscience about the things that you enjoy and critiquing them as items of cultural significance with potentially problematic subtexts. Most impressively, she does it without ever losing the casual tone, the warm-hearted atmosphere of acceptance and welcoming, and the inspirational message that embracing the things you love is unconditionally good and you should never feel ashamed of being excited and enthusiastic about them.

Along the way, the book takes in topics like, "What is a convention and how do I have a good time at one?", "How do I deal with online trolls?", and "How do I, too, write smutty fanfiction featuring my favorite characters?" It also has a few short interviews with various female creators, which was one thing I thought could have been expanded greatly, but the book does have a lot to take in, after all. (I haven't even mentioned its tips on how to set up your own Quidditch match.) Through it all, Maggs keeps the authorial voice conversational and breezy--after all, this is a book about how to have more fun doing all the things you enjoy. It makes sense to speak in fan slang and Internet-speak. (The book also includes a helpful glossary, for all the people who do not yet understand that they can have all the feels about things.)

She also makes it clear that if you don't like people who use fan slang, who speak in Internet-speak and who squee, then this is your problem and not the problem of the rest of the world. The strong subtext, and frequently the strong text of the book is, "It is okay to disagree; it is never okay to disrespect." The message that fandom should have no gatekeepers resonated strongly with me and made reading the book a very happy experience even if I don't necessarily know who the Nerdfighters, Marshmallows, Irrelevants, Interns, Castillions, Madokies, Walker Stalkers, Assassins, Smashers, Squints, Queen's Readers, Homestucks, Moonies, Initiates, Gearheads, Truebies, Human Beings, Cortexifans, Psych-Os, Hetalians, Sleepyheads, Rum Runners, Shadowhunters, Pinenuts, and Lawsbians actually are. Because that doesn't mean they're not "real" fans. It just makes it clear that no matter how big I think fandom is, it's always bigger than I realize.

I Made a Meme!

It is genuinely terrible. Please share without attribution.